The first grain freighter from Ukraine since the beginning of the war crossed the Bosphorus towards Lebanon on Wednesday: a success for Turkey, which negotiated the Istanbul Grain Agreement. More ships are to follow, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already aiming higher.
This Friday he will be the first head of state of a NATO country to travel to Russia to see Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin since the beginning of the war. As a mediator in the Ukraine war, Erdogan wants to explore options for a ceasefire.
Erdogan can really use foreign policy successes. Ten months before the next parliamentary and presidential elections, his government has its back against the wall because of the economic crisis in Turkey.
With his central role in efforts to defuse the Ukraine conflict, 68-year-old Erdogan can present himself to voters as a world-class statesman.
The entry into force of the Istanbul Grain Agreement has boosted Erdogan’s international prestige. That’s why the president now has the confidence to persuade Putin to sign a ceasefire with Kyiv. He has been working closely with the Russian President for years.
The President is not a born foreign politician. He doesn’t speak any foreign languages and doesn’t think much of diplomatic restraint. When he sat down with the heads of government of Finland and Sweden at the NATO summit in Madrid in June to discuss Turkey’s threat of vetoing the two countries’ NATO membership, he opened the meeting by saying: “Actually, I don’t want to talk with you.”
Last year, Erdogan threatened to throw out ten western ambassadors who had annoyed him.
In the Ukraine conflict, Erdogan is taking a middle course. Turkey supplies combat drones to Ukraine but does not participate in Western sanctions against Russia. Putin has come to terms with that.
At his most recent meeting with Erdogan last week in Tehran, the Kremlin chief even asked whether Russia could also have Turkish drones, as Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin reported on TV Channel 7.
Putin said his request was “half a joke,” Kalin said. Erdogan answered with a smile, but Russia will not get drones.
Kalin knows such anecdotes because he attends all of Erdogan’s important meetings with foreign heads of state. The 50-year-old is more than Erdogan’s presidential spokesman and chief adviser. Kalin, who speaks perfect English, is the foreign policy professional and polished diplomat among Erdogan’s closest associates.
Secret service chief Hakan Fidan is at least as important as Kalin. According to a report by the usually well-informed Middle East Eye news website, the 54-year-old found the compromise during a coffee break on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid that opened the way for Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.
Fidan has been in office for eleven years and is mostly silent in public. To this day, it is unknown why the intelligence chief conferred with then-Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar in the hours leading up to the 2016 coup attempt.
Akar is now Defense Minister and the third in the group of close Erdogan advisers. The 70-year-old former professional soldier has been a minister since 2018 and organized Turkish military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Libya. He also led negotiations with Russia and Ukraine on the Istanbul grain deal.
At the meeting with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Erdogan, Kalin, Fidan and Akar want to talk about Syria, where Turkey is planning a new invasion. Above all, they want to find out whether the momentum of the Grains Agreement can be used for a ceasefire.
Erdogan receives support from former German chancellor and Putin friend Gerhard Schröder. Schröder said that the Istanbul grain deal was a success that could possibly be expanded into a ceasefire.
However, the Turkish options are limited. Erdogan is an important partner for the internationally isolated Putin, but Russia is looking out for its own interests.
Erdogan may overestimate the importance of his country and his personal influence. In order to move something in the Ukraine conflict, the superpower USA would have to get involved, Schröder agrees: “Without a yes from Washington, it won’t work.”